The investigation into Canada’s scandalous system of mandatory residential schools for Indigenous children was among the most comprehensive reviews in the country’s history, taking testimony from more than 6,000 witnesses and reviewing thousands of documents over six years.
And, in the end, the conclusion of the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission was unambiguous: “Children were abused, physically and sexually, and they died in the schools in numbers that would not have been tolerated in any school system anywhere in the country, or in the world.”
From the 1880s through the 1990s, the Canadian government forcibly removed at least 150,000 Indigenous children from their homes and sent them to residential schools to assimilate them into Western ways. Their languages and religious and cultural practices were banned, sometimes using violence. It was, the commission reported in 2015, a system of “cultural genocide.”
Because of the schools, generations of Indigenous children were raised by adults, including priests and nuns, who had little understanding of their roles, and many students developed mental health and substance abuse problems from the trauma they suffered at the schools.
Death came in many forms. Diseases like the Spanish flu and tuberculosis raced through the overcrowded schools. Many had farms tended by students where accidents, sometimes fatal, occurred. Malnutrition, a result of underfunding, was rife at many schools. And fires destroyed several of the remote schools, often with students trapped inside.
While the federal government funded and established the system, it turned to churches to operate most of them, which in most cases used the schools as missionary outposts. Depending on the period of time, the Roman Catholic Church operated between 60 and 70 percent of the schools, with Protestant denominations running the balance.
The nation’s attention refocused on the legacy of the schools last year after analyses of ground-penetrating radar revealed evidence of more than 1,000 remains buried in unmarked graves around several schools. For most of the time that the system operated, the government refused to reimburse the churches for burials or to pay to return students’ bodies to their communities.
The ground-penetrating radar searches continue at many school sites, and many communities are expected to hold difficult discussions about whether to exhume the remains.